When your writing career carries on without you…

 

So today I got an unexpected email from the folks at SAGE Academic Publishing. About four years ago, I wanted to write some short encyclopedia entries for them and they said no because I didn’t have a Ph.D. It was one of the things that made me consider graduate school.

They advised me that if I could find someone to co-author who had the necessary credentials, I could write for them.

I enlisted my college era friend Annette Varcoe, a brilliant scholar in American history and Women’s studies who had a freshly-minted Ph.D. after her name. She allowed me the pleasure of helping her edit her final dissertation.

The topic at hand was one of my favorite places in the world, Djibouti, and the article was based on a capstone project for my international affairs degree I had just completed. She knew nothing about Djibouti but her critical eye brought life to my dream and she got hooked on this region of the world and conditions there. Our first article was on poverty in Djibouti. She approached me a few months later and asked if I would consider doing another on security.

We did. Both pieces were submitted fairly close to each other. We probably wrote them both in 2014. The poverty piece was published in July 2015. I got the email that the second has now been published. March 2018. My career looks current even if I have stalled a bit!

This refreshed my memory that I never actually saw a book review I submitted to Global Studies South. Since my husband is home from work today using up his vacation, I asked him to look me up in the academic databases to which the Lafayette College libraries subscribe.

And here I am!

Seeking perspective: the story behind my travels

This is the rough draft of a presentation I have been asked to give to a class of my graduate school peers at West Chester University next week. My faculty advisor asked me to give a talk about my recent travels in Somalia. We’re all working on master’s degrees in history or genocide/holocaust studies. 

In my case, I’ve recently discovered I’m not the European History MA candidate I thought I was but apparently I’ll be studying World History, with an emphasis with Africa, followed by minor fields in the Middle East and China. 
My true interest is post colonial Francophone Africa, and how the ramifications of European colonialism have an impact on contemporary issues regarding the overlap of Africa, the Middle East, and terrorism. Islam has become the new communism as the dangerous ideology the West must destroy.

Life circumstances have forced me to move away from a successful 15-year career in local print journalism. But my interest in information, sharing information and researching perspectives on the world has led me toward an eventual Ph.D. 

My career in journalism featured a variety of restructurings and lay-offs. When perpetually faced with a shifting marketplace you are forced to face your fears and your complacency. Every small event in life can lead to an unforeseen path. For me, I turned my focus toward my daughter and part-time professional work. A friend steered me toward hosting a French exchange student which led to me enrolling in an undergraduate French class to see if I still had the language I once majored in rolling around in my head.

I did.

That class opened my eyes to my love of academia. It also exposed me to the “Muslim problem” in France. And I made new friends. 

Although I had a bachelor’s degree in English/French from Moravian College, I enrolled for a second bachelor’s in International Affairs from Lafayette College. It would be the perfect way to see if I could balance life, school, work and child. Plus it would give me academic credentials in fields I knew about from my journalism experience: politics and economics. I just never anticipated that I would develop an affinity for history.

Up until this point, I was a total French whore. I visited France for a month in 1995 and fantasized about a return to Paris. It was 2010.

My part-time professional job imploded. I developed severe anemia that left me lying on the living room floor at three in the afternoon until my five-year-old could make a cup of coffee for Mommy. I got a job in retail, because I didn’t have the strength for professional work. I wanted to punch a time clock and go home.

Around this time an old friend from college the first time reconnected with me via Facebook. He offered to take me to Paris. He felt sorry for the rough patch I had hit in life and he had the ability to make my return-to-Paris dream a reality. We went to Paris for the weekend between my orientation for my new job and my first day of training. There were twelve of us in that group at orientation, and we had to introduce ourselves. We were asked to share something random about ourselves. I remember saying, “I’m Angel and I leave for Paris tomorrow.”

M and I had a great time on that trip. I was in a history seminar on 20th Century French Identity and the Muslim problem and religious history in France was a key component. My travels in Paris had included a visit to public Muslim prayer in the streets. I went to ethnically diverse neighborhoods where the European Paris I remembered did not exist. What I found was a multicultural Paris swimming with Africans, Asians, Indians, gypsies and Arabs. I recently had a poem published in StepAway magazine about this revelation.

My studies kept leading me to Algeria, and I became convinced that the complex issue of religion in France should not be one of the French against Islam, but the French addressing their stereotypes of Muslims created during the colonization of Algeria. The no headscarves in schools law and later the anti-niqab law focused on visible Islam, but the issue was French perpetuation of the 19th century prejudice that Muslims were inferior people. These stereotypes came from the Algerian colonial project. This became my honors project.

I am typically afraid of my own shadow. But it was around this time that M suggested a research trip to Algeria. His visa never came through. Mine did. 

  
So we did an immigrant’s journey instead. We started in Paris, fly to Tunis (visited the ancient ruins of Carthage) and finished the voyage with a few days in Marseille soI could see the Arab influence. It opened my eyes. 

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for France, after all I have read the 1905 law on the separation of church and state and the constitution of the Fifth Republic in the original French. But setting foot in North Africa changed me. There was such a crazy blend of European influence and African beauty. From fresh baguettes covered with flies and soup made of lamb sausage and harissa (known as ojja) to the diversity of the architecture… We had arrived in Tunisia on the one-year-anniversary of the abdication of President Ben Ali and the initiation of the Arab Spring. And we had done that by accident. The streets were teaming with people, citizens shot fireworks off balconies, and a random North African guy grabbed my ass.

I had certainly gone beyond my comfort zone. And I started to realize that sometimes the thing that scares you most is the thing you most need to do.

My next academic interest became Djibouti. After the Algerian War for Independence (which ended in 1952, an abrupt and tragic decolonization that led to the more-or-less overnight displacement of a million French people and caused, in my opinion, the psychological issue that has further exploded into the contemporary “Muslim problem” in France), the French moved their primary military presence in Africa to the horn, to the small colony of Djibouti, a strategic point between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

France had a conscript army until 1999. This means that when the French left Algeria, a multitude of the next couple generations of men served their military service in Djibouti. M had visited Djibouti just prior to the original trip to Paris he and I took. I begged him to take me to Djibouti. He did. In April 2014. During the beginning of the hot season. When I had a broken right hand in a brace. For a side trip, we did Yemen. Old Sana’a. Where I discovered they love to climb to roofs.

I loved it. We went to Moscow and Siberia in 2015. The Siberia trip was a one day visit for pizza. (Stories about all these trips can be found on this web site.) I have literally walked through what felt like good-block, bad-block, reminiscent of communist era Russia. And ridden some amazing old subways that are more than 100 years old. 

This year we returned to Djibouti. A war has since broke out in Yemen so while the State Department may frown upon my visit there, I am so glad I saw it when I could. (And for the record, I technically did an internship for the State Department. I worked in communications at USAID.)

Somewhere along the line, I said I would visit Somalia. So we did Mogadishu during our January trip. It’s strange to visit places where you become the one who doesn’t speak the language or have no ability to read. It’s surreal to be escorted everywhere by men with machine guns. But it also teaches you how much of the world lives and why knowing what happens around us— knowing our history— is so important.

The plane on which we traveled between Djibouti and Mogadishu was the same exact plane where a suicide bomber killed himself and blew a hole in the plane. That happened less than two weeks after we left. A week after we left there was a hostage situation at Lido Beach, our first destination when we arrived in Mogadishu. 

But look at what’s happened recently in Paris, Turkey, Brussels. A house caught fire in the middle of my block and took out three neighboring homes. The weekend before I left for Africa, I rescued someone from a heroin overdose in my own house. I broke my ankle in August walking down the street to buy a salad. Safety is an illusion. 

M handles the arrangements for our trips. He’s headed to Syria next week and while he invited me to join him, I declined. Safety is one of the reasons, but not the most important to me. I have faith in his research and contacts. He’s been doing this a long time. You can’t be careless, but “adventure tourism” is a real thing. As historians and academics, we have to remember where our perspective comes from and that we can’t rely on the media for our viewpoints. If you aren’t sure of your sources, sometimes you need to tackle it yourself.

The Amazing Lives of Camels

Our second day in Somalia featured some excursions outside of Mogadishu. We visited… for lack of better terms… a camel dairy farm.

Apparently we arrived at just the right moment as two of the camels were mating. We were told that camels mate for four hours, and we had arrived in time to see the camels finish. (I posted a video on my Instagram account: angelackerman.) A baby camel gestates for 13 months and will have an average life span of 25 years.

Camel milk is touted for its medicinal properties against cancer, HIV and other diseases. We tried some fresh out of the camel (from a communal African bowl) and it was sweet and had an almost vanilla-like taste. I kept comparing it to almond milk in my mind.

They gave us some in a plastic sandwich bag, tied at the top in a knot, to take home. The armed guards in our contingent and our other staff also took some, but they bit the corner off their bag and drank it right away. We put ours in the hotel fridge. After dinner, M bit the corner off the bag (not as eloquently as our Somali hosts) and we poured it into our water glasses.

I mixed up the glasses and M corrected me. At this point I reminded him that we had shared a communal bowl with a bunch of random Somalis and he was concerned about switching our glasses…

We both decided that cold it tasted like milk. We were disappointed as neither one of us likes milk. Maybe you have to drink it warm.

 

 

The Coffee Lady in Mogadishu

On our first day in Mogadishu, we were driving back to our hotel, Hotel Sahafi, when the traffic slowed and a gendarme told us that the white car a few car lengths ahead of us contained a bomb. Apparently, a suicide bomber had made it this far (about two miles from our hotel) when authorities noticed the bomb and the bomber-to-be deserted the car and ran.

As a result, the road was closed and we were rerouted until the car bomb could be diffused. We were returned to the hotel and locked in for the night. While our driver and guide were getting information from the gendarme, I noticed this woman making coffee and started taking photos. Since I don’t speak Somali more than “Yes,” “No,” “My name is…” and “Move,” I didn’t realize at the time that we were so close to a live bomb.

Of course I used the time to snap street photography from inside our vehicle. These photos were taken on the outskirts of a makeshift village of refugees who left their homes in flight of the rebel group Al Shabaab.

 

Addicted to Somali Cuisine

I have fallen in love with the food in our hotel in Mogadishu. My amorous affair began with goat, moved to the Somali version of fried chicken, devoured the rice and perhaps might have peaked over the quality of the fruit. And that was just lunch.

I adore eating. I live to eat and enjoy every morsel that enters my mouth.

In Somalia, this was the first taste:

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Rice, with “Somali sauce” in the upper right and banana

Have you ever seen rice so beautiful? I added some of what the servers are calling “Somali sauce,” a hot sauce that seems like a blend of harissa and ketchup.

For a main dish I selected goat. M chose chicken. The other option was camel. Hopefully that will be an option again today. I would like to try camel.

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Goat

Dessert at lunch and dinner is fresh fruit. Appetizer is the best bananas I have ever had and limes. I am not a fuit eater. At home I occasionally eat a banana and I adore raspberries. I can eat watermelon or strawberries but won’t go out of my way to do so. Well, they bring out this melon after lunch, carefully draping a napkin over it to keep the flies off. I liked it. Was a tad indifferent to it, but it cleaned the palate and had a mild, fresh taste.

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Papaya?

When we returned to the hotel early (due to a failed suicide bomb attempt and a still live bomb strapped to a car two blocks away), we enjoyed a coffee, some sort of donut and samosa.

 

On the second day, our tour guide/”fixer” told us to wrap the samosa in the donut. I liked them better eaten separately.

Dinner the first night was chicken steak, spaghetti and a vegetable mix of what appeared to be potatoes, onions, peppers and carrots. It tickled my tongue so much I ate enough for at least two people.

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The spaghetti had an unusual spice to it and a little bit of meat, a tad on the dry side but in a good way. M insists the stray herb is cilantro. I wish I would have taken an after photo of this platter. The staff brought this for the two of it and I demolished most of it.

IMG_7912And then came the fruit course, lovingly and carefully covered with a napkin. I do not eat fruit. My daughter on the other hand eats fruit as if she were part monkey. I ate the papaya (? on the bottom) first. I liked it. Then switched between the mango and the watermelon. In comparison to the mango, which had a texture that melted in your mouth and a potent flavor as if someone had condensed it, the watermelon (though juicy and the most flavorful watermelon I have eaten) seemed bland.

I had noticed earlier in the day, a man in a fouta that squeezed the limes into his water. I had also seen the lime squeezed over the rice. Definitely an “a-ha” moment. M added lime to the Coke he was drinking to combat a caffeine headache. And the staff constantly offers us Coke and bottled water. And the occasional Sprite.

Our guide suggested we try Somali injera for breakfast to compare to the Ethiopian version. Our server offered us “omelette,” liver or porridge for breakfast and seemed a tad surprised we wanted injera. We ordered omelette and then he asked how we liked our omelette. His first offer was “scrambled” so I accepted that and assumed omelette was his term for eggs. He brought a giant portion of eggs, injera and, of course, we asked for Somali sauce. I really believe they make it for us fresh when we request it.

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Somali injera for breakfast with “omelette”

The injera has a crisper texture and is less spongy than the Ethiopian.

Meanwhile, at a nearby table, I watch the same man who revealed the uses for lime. He was having raw egg and honey for breakfast.

When we returned to the hotel for lunch, we dined in the fancier dining room and had no choice of goat or camel. Merely fish, chicken leg or chicken steak. But we started with a lovely cream of vegetable soup, with fresh juices: mango, watermelon and limeade. I drank them all and all delighted me.

Our dinner last night repeated the dinner the night before, and breakfast was also the same today. I must come back and try the camel some day.

Departure tomorrow

 Everyone has a travel routine. Mine typically involves packing, unpacking and repacking my suitcase every day for a week. 

My week has been hectic: my retail life still discombobulated from Christmas, family life still scattered due to a health emergency over the weekend, home repairs, refinancing the house and catching up with college friends home for the holidays (and building some new relationships, too).

So I just finished packing now. Packing the first time, not the unpacking and repacking part. My train leaves in about 16 hours.

The only thing I have left is to pack my laptop, my phone and my Fitbit charger.

Some people think it’s crazy that I’m going to Mogadishu. 

Some people think it sounds like a great adventure.

Many are concerned for my safety.